Give product safety agency more clout

November 23, 2007|By Doug Gansler and David Kosmos

Today is "Black Friday" -- the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. As parents and other caregivers get ready for the gift-giving holidays, many may be asking: How can we be sure that the toys we buy for our children are not tainted with lead? How can we be sure they don't pose any other hazards?

It's a tough question to answer.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission does not test consumer products before they are offered for sale. It's left up to manufacturers, importers and retailers to guarantee that the products they sell -- from chain saws to toasters to Barbie dolls and Thomas the Tank Engine trains -- meet all mandatory and voluntary safety standards.

But asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to do such tests would never work. The commission already has a big job to do on a little budget.

The commission's budget of $63 million is less than half of what its 1974 founding budget ($34 million) would be today had it merely been corrected for inflation.

With only 15 of its 400 staff on duty as import inspectors at hundreds of ports of entry (down from a peak of about 970 staff 27 years ago), how can the commission stop every lead-laden toy?

But there is a lot that can be done to make the agency more effective and make its job of protecting children and others easier.

First, Congress should ban lead at any level higher than trace amounts, or about 90 parts per million, in lead paint and in any jewelry or toy or other product intended for children under 12. Exposure to lead, even in tiny amounts, lowers IQ and causes other developmental and behavioral problems.

Second, Congress should muscle up the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It obviously needs more money and staff, but companies are more afraid of Wal-Mart or other retailers' insistence on low costs than on the U.S. safety laws enforced by the commission. It needs more authority to issue penalties for violations: an increase from the current $1.8 million (a rounding error to a multi-national company) to at least $100 million. Its voluntary recall system puts too much power in the hands of the company that made the dangerous product, including the power to control the wording of a press release announcing a recall. Some recalls -- such as a recent recall of a dangerous small magnet toy and the recall of a poorly designed crib -- do not even result in removal of the dangerous products from store shelves.

Third, we need stronger rules to guarantee import safety. While manufacturers have promoted the need for independent, third-party testing of imports in the press, they have opposed meaningful proposals in Congress. Imported products should also be subject to greater traceability and labeling requirements. Any importer should be required to guarantee to U.S. customs inspectors that it can afford to pay for any necessary recall before its products leave the boat.

Finally, any new federal law must allow state legislatures and state attorneys general to help police the product safety marketplace. We need 51 consumer cops on the beat, not just one.

American consumers have lost confidence in the safety of the toys and other products that they buy in the marketplace. Our society can and should do a better job of protecting our children from preventable hazards. These changes are a start. This holiday toy-buying season, we urge Congress to make them law.

Doug Gansler is Maryland's attorney general. David Kosmos is program associate for Maryland PIRG. His e-mail is david@marylandpirg.org.

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